The Japanese government has today announced that it will be contributing around £300M to build a wall of frozen earth around the damaged and leaky nuclear plant at Fukushima. The idea, which has never been tested, is that massive metal cooling rods will be sunk deep into the earth surrounding the plant and that these will freeze the soil in a ring around the plant, which will prevent any radiactive water, currently leaking at a rate of about 300 tonnes a day from leaching into the groundwater or indeed into the sea.
It sounds bizarre, but it would prevent leaking water from spreading further, if it works. It’s absolutely clear that something has to be done to process the 330,000 tonnes of contaminated water that is currently being stored there. And more and more water is needed every day to cool the damaged reactors, so the problem of water storage is only going to get bigger and bigger as time goes on.
The water will need to be processed on an ongoing basis to remove most of the radioactive elements, particularly after the news that some of the leaking water is 18 times more radioactive than originally thought and is sufficiently dangerous to kill after exposure of just four hours.
Any sort of nuclear accident is a serious problem, but this – one of only two to reach category seven, the highest on the scale along with Chernobyl, is a major one. Yet Tepco, the company responsible for the Fukushima plant and for the cleanup operation seems to have had problems taking it seriously enough.
It has emerged for example that until recently, just two workers were employed to carry out twice daily checks of the 1,000 tanks containing 330,000 tonnes of radioactive water.
Now Tepco says it’s struggling to find new workers, with some of the current workforce resigning and other being forced to leave because they reach the permitted limit of radiation exposure. Possibly this isn’t a surprise – it doesn’t seem like a great place to work! But given that cleaning up Fukushima is going to be a job that is estimated to last for the next forty years at least, a new workforce needs to be found.
It is going to cost tens of billions over the coming years to properly decommission the plant, so this new money from the government is in no way the solution. But at least there are signs that Tepco is not going to be left to sort the mess out itself.
With all the billions of pounds being invested in new nuclear plants around the world, I really wonder whether that investment would be much better placed in alternative, sustainable technologies – microgeneration for all households to become self-sufficient for their energy needs. It would be just as clean and would have none of the possible harmful side effects of nuclear power.